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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 28
Fighting the wrong wars, death’s acre and a careering Hercules

WITH THE Kuwait War over, life in HQBFME became increasingly tedious as we all waited to hear when we might be able to go home. However, one important task we had to complete was the compilation of the Post Operations Report (POR).
Like many other organisations, the British Army tries hard to review what has happened in training or on operations to collect the lessons learned for future endeavours. Unlike the Fire Service or the Police, say, the army may only ply its trade for real intermittently and when it does it’s always useful to know what went right, or indeed wrong.

The problem is, of course, that there is no guarantee that the next war will be the same as the one before, and it’s probably fair to say that the army often enters the next one perfectly prepared for the last one. The Second World War is probably the most egregious example of this (despite having developed new theories of mobile warfare using the tank – Ed.), but much the same could be said of subsequent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no easy solution to the conundrum.

Nevertheless, it would be a foolish organisation which did not at least attempt to learn lessons from past successes and failures, so we set to. A team of about twenty or so assorted arms and services representatives was sent forward from HQBFME in Riyadh to visit the British units in the field and quiz those who had been closest involved in the fighting before memories dulled.

So we flew from Riyadh to Al Jubail in an RAF Hercules, which was pleasant enough, but it was raining when we arrived at our interim stop. The aircraft then developed a fault and we could well have become stuck. If it had been peacetime we undoubtedly would have been, for the RAF was notoriously slow and inefficient in those days when it came to fixing their passenger transport aircraft.

However, one of the joys of being on operations was that air transport was able to throw off the shackles of peacetime procedures and operate properly. If you wanted to go somewhere, and there was a ‘plane going there with some room on it, you got on, as simple as that. The loadmaster might ask you if your gun was unloaded before you boarded, but that was it. What a relief it was from the tiresome bureaucracy of RAF peacetime transport arrangements!

Anyway, there was an RNZAF Hercules on the strip and it was available for tasking, so we transferred to that lock, stock, and barrel for onward passage to Kuwait International after a two hour pause. The NZ crew were a bit hacked off, to be honest, because they had been about to go off duty after a normal shift, but they hid it very well. They had an extremely laconic Sergeant Loadmaster who addressed everyone as “mate”, of course, who rather amusingly apologised for the lack of an in-flight movie during his pre-flight briefing, a joke I suspect he had told numerous times before, but it made me laugh anyway.

In the end they delivered us safely and without further incident to Kuwait International, despite the restricted visibility from the oil wells the Iraqis had set alight during their retreat, and we were all very grateful. The airport was a mess and presented a desolate spectacle as we deplaned. There was a burned out airliner close to our arrival point and the runways were strewn with shrapnel. Every pane of glass in the large terminal building seemed to have been broken and it looked as if the place had been thoroughly looted.

We didn’t have time to explore further, though, for shortly we heard the clatter of helicopters, and two or three RAF Puma aircraft hove into view, landed, and taxied up to collect us. Our party then split into smaller groups and headed off to visit various units scattered across northern Kuwait. I and several others were bound for the 1 (UK) Armd Div HQ, located some dozen miles or so beyond the outskirts of Kuwait City, on the way north to the Iraq border and Basra.

As we flew across the city I noticed that there were quite a few abandoned Iraqi tanks and other vehicles by the sides of the roads, both in the centre of the town and in the residential suburbs. Nothing had prepared me, though, for the scene outside the city on the main highway north. We flew at about 200 feet over what had become known as “Death’s Acre” or the “Highway of Death” – the few kilometres of the motorway where Coalition aircraft had trapped the fleeing Iraqis and destroyed everything in continuous air attacks.

Although I had previously seen television pictures of the carnage, the reality was much worse. All lanes of the highway were blocked by destroyed and burnt-out vehicles, noses pointing north, and the roadsides and far out into the desert were littered with the detritus of a defeated army in headlong flight. The Iraqis had clearly commandeered anything that moved in their panic to escape, for amongst the tanks and trucks were large numbers of civilian cars, vans, and buses, similarly blackened by fire.

Worse still, in many ways, was the evidence that all these derelict vehicles had been thoroughly looted, for each wreck was surrounded by a little pitiful pile of possessions which lay where the scavengers had discarded them. More than anything it was reminiscent of a large refuse dump, and to view it was hardly an uplifting experience. There was certainly no sense of triumph or victory as we flew over.

Our Divisional HQ was in a plantation on the coast just north of Kuwait City, comfortable enough as far as living in the desert goes. It consisted of the usual Ops tent complex, plus a ragtag collection of tents, trucks, and assorted military and civilian vehicles parked in among the scruffy palm trees. I knew quite a number of the staff, and they seemed to be in fine fettle, if a little weary, and very pleased it was all over. I spent some time working with them, and then turned in for the night in a small tent shared with two others, a tight squeeze exacerbated by the fact there seemed to be a complete arsenal of captured Iraqi weaponry in there too!

The next day I headed back to Kuwait airport, driven by Regimental chum Duncan MacMillan, who had been seconded to Div HQ as a watchkeeper, in a civvy Range Rover that he had purloined from somewhere. I bade him farewell at the terminal and would next see him back in Germany. I found my way to a temporised check-in desk where a cheerful RAF corporal with his feet up on the desk invited me to dump any illicit Iraqi weaponry I had on me in a box next to him and then allocated me to an aircraft. This last action wasn’t too difficult for him, for there was a strictly limited number of destinations and if there was a flight going in your direction you got on it.

The same friendly NZ Hercules crew were flying me again, and my fellow passengers included a company of Queen’s Own Highlanders who has just come out of the desert (and were exhausted) plus a few other odd individuals. There was also an extraordinarily pretty blonde American girl on board, from one of their National Guard units I think. Halfway through the trip to Al Jubail she disappeared into the crew cabin, and after about five minutes the aircraft began a series of turning and banking manoeuvres which the routine flight didn’t call for.

Sure enough, the girl was the pilot’s current par amour and he was taking the opportunity to give her some impromptu flying lessons, allowing her to take control (under supervision I hope). I wouldn’t imagine for one minute that such practices were allowed even in the RNZAF, but nobody complained – we were all too tired anyway – and no-one in authority was ever the wiser. It made for an interesting interlude on an otherwise rather dull journey, and I was sad to see her leave the ‘plane at Jubail.

The remainder of the flight back to Riyadh was uneventful. My old friend from Staff College Jonathan Campbell-James was on the same flight and had arranged for a driver from the British Embassy to pick him up at the airport, so he kindly offered to give me a lift into town. On the way we diverted to his house inside the Embassy compound for a couple of real beers before his driver deposited me back at the Marriott. This was to be my last trip up country, and the next time I saw the airport was to be on my way out of Saudi Arabia. The boys in the desert, meanwhile, had a little bit more time to kick their heels before they too headed back home.

To come in Part 29; going back to Germany.

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